x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Powerboat deaths: racers say rescuers took too long

Participants and spectators complain the Dubai Grand Prix continued for two laps before the rescue began in earnest.

Boats and helicopters hover near the upended Victory 1 racing boat, which crashed during a competition on Friday, killing Mohammed al Mehairi and Jean-Marc Sanchez.
Boats and helicopters hover near the upended Victory 1 racing boat, which crashed during a competition on Friday, killing Mohammed al Mehairi and Jean-Marc Sanchez.

DUBAI // Powerboat teams expressed new concerns yesterday about efforts to rescue the two men who were killed when their boat crashed during a race on Friday. Mohammed al Mehairi and Jean-Marc Sanchez died after their boat went airborne, flipped over and crashed into the water upside-down during the Dubai Grand Prix.

Questions about the time it took rescuers to reach the men began soon after the accident, and continued yesterday. "There seemed to be no urgency in what they were trying to do, which really makes you angry," said Bill Barry-Cotter, the owner of the Maritimo team. "To me, this should never have happened." Members of several teams voiced similar concerns to The National. "From what I can gather, everyone was a little disappointed," said Peter McGrath, a driver for Maritimo.

Mr al Mehairi, 34, an Emirati, and Mr Sanchez, 48, from France, raced for the Dubai-based Victory Team and were second in the world standings. Their team declined to comment. Although some witnesses said it took longer, race officials insist it took rescue crews one minute and 20 seconds to reach the boat. However, Mr Barry-Cotter, who has been in the sport for 21 years, said anything longer than 45 seconds should be a cause for concern.

"There should be two helicopters with divers in them, and at every turn-mark on the course there should be divers within 30 seconds away," he said. "If it took 45 seconds to get a diver there, you would be asking questions." Sid Bensalah, the secretary general of the World Professional Powerboating Association (WPPA), acknowledged that helicopters at the race were not manned with divers who could be readily deployed, as is the case at other competitions.

Mr Barry-Cotter, who examined a video of the rescue attempt and talked with team members, said the response was inadequate from the beginning. "What turned up first was the start boat, which has got no people on board who are capable of rescuing anyone," he said. The video, which is on YouTube, captures the two drivers in the cockpit of Victory 1, wearing helmets and blue uniforms, as their boat loses control and rotates in mid-air before crashing into the water.

The footage then shifts to the boat upside-down in the water, with no sign of the two men, as other craft, still racing, speed past. After a 28-second delay in the video, a police boat and an orange-coloured vessel, carrying two men in trainers and jump suits, are seen to approach the upended boat. The video then cuts to a man in a wet suit desperately trying to open the boat's bottom hatch. Divers, presumably swimming under the boat to reach the second escape hatch, emerge from the water as competing boats continue to race past. Participants and spectators complained that the race continued for two laps before the rescue began in earnest.

Mr Bensalah, who is also the general manager of Dubai International Marine Club, the event organiser, said there was nothing wrong with the rescue attempt. To monitor the eight craft competing in the race, he said, there were eight rescue boats, 10 tow boats, four coastguard vessels and five police boats. The race director orchestrated the effort from a nearby control tower. Asked whether there was a delay in the rescue mission, he said: "If you are witness to a car crash, and you see rescue people on the scene, let's say seconds after the crash, and the body is in such a mess under the dashboard, or maybe close to the engine, how long do you think it will take to get those bodies out of the wreckage? Hours."

After the men were retrieved from the water, they were taken to the dock where medical staff tried to revive them, and then airlifted to a hospital. A photographer for The National observed the two men lying on the dock for as long as 20 minutes after being removed from the water. Officials from the WPPA declined to comment. The powerboat association said that it was investigating the crash, but the details "would not be open publicly", according to Mr Bensalah. It was unclear whether any government agency would be involved.

Race officials and participants said it appeared the main safety feature aboard the boat had failed. Its reinforced cockpit, fashioned after a fighter jet's to provide protection against even the most jarring crashes, is thought to have buckled upon impact. The extent of the damage, particularly to the cockpit, "was something we've never seen before", Mr Bensalah said. The boat was travelling at more than 200 kph, leading to speculation that the punctured cockpit may have let in blasts of high-pressure water. This could have knocked the drivers unconscious, or possibly killed them.

"I honestly have never seen an impact of that magnitude," Mr McGrath said. Offshore powerboat racing has seen dramatic safety improvements over the past two decades. Sweeping changes were introduced after the death in 1990 of Stefano Casiraghi, the husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco, in an accident on the French Riviera. Before then, powerboating was perceived as a sport for the rich and the daring, and deaths occurred regularly.

Clive Curtis, the father of the champion racer Steve Curtis, told The Sunday Times in 2006 that the early days of the sport were more dangerous. "You just sat out in the open with no canopy and no helmet. One year we lost 13 drivers in one race," he said. "I entered the Paris Six-Hour race every year, and every year somebody was killed." In the 1970s and 1980s, several competitors in the United States were involved in smuggling drugs from Latin America, using their powerful boats to elude authorities.

The sport, still regarded by many as amateur, is considered to have steadily become more professional in its rules and regulations. Mr Barry-Cotter, of the Australian-based Maritimo team, expressed concern that some regulations including those covering cockpit construction and safety had been scaled down by the WPPA. The organisation took over regulatory responsibilities for the sport in 2006 from the Monaco-based Union Internationale Motonautique.

Several other competitors, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed similar reservations. "What that meant is that you could shift 40kg from the top of the cockpit to the bottom, and really the boat is unbeatable," said Mr Barry-Cotter, who has been involved in shaping the sport's regulations. "But then you take all the integrity out of it. "It appears to be more important to win a race at any cost rather than being concerned about the safety of the people competing."

Mr Bensalah denied his claim. Steve Curtis, perhaps the sport's most prolific competitor, said it was important that mistakes were learnt from the accident. "I think the difference between living and dying can be two miles an hour of wind, and I think there is always a situation where people will, tragically, die," he said. He said he hoped last week's deaths would be a pivotal point in safety decisions.

"Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy of this size for people to get serious about it," he said. Mr al Mehairi and Mr Sanchez were experienced competitors. Mr al Mehairi was a regular at the Dubai marine club, racing wooden powerboats and sailing in dhow races. hnaylor@thenational.ae